The Military Novelist: An Analogy

By June 19, 2011Comms

When I first joined the military, I expected a giant bureaucracy to function like a family. I expected it to ingest me, care for me and guide my every move. All I would have to do is show up and follow orders.

The exact opposite was true.

The military is quick to punish me if I fail to meet standards, but meeting those standards is entirely up to me. Nobody makes sure that I PT, but if I fail to make weight, I’ll be thrown out. Nobody makes sure that my qualifications, awards and scores are entered into the personnel database, but if they don’t get in there, I won’t get promoted. Nobody makes sure that I get up and get to work on time, but if I’m late, it’s my ass. During my entire time at the academy, the only answer I ever got to any question I asked was “GET IN THE DAMN MANUAL!” There was a manual for everything, and they were all cryptic, difficult to navigate and flat out wrong half the time.

The lesson was this: you are responsible not only for your sailors and for your mission, but for yourself. Nobody will advocate for you. Nobody will take care of you. At the end of the day, you own every mistake you make and every mistake made by everyone else as well. The impetus to work hard, to pay attention to detail, to ensure nothing goes wrong ever, is nothing less than intense.

You’d think I’d have learned my lesson.

Years later, when I went pro as a writer, I signed with one of the big New York publishing houses. I got the deal via one of the biggest agents in the business. My beta readers included international bestselling authors.

Institutions. I assumed they would take me in, watch over me, ensure I didn’t fail.

The exact opposite is true.

My agent works hard for me, but he still works for me. He provides decades of industry experience in guiding my contract negotiations and fantastic editorial advice. But the ultimate decisions are still mine, as is the responsibility for the outcomes. My editor provided thoughtful commentary on the manuscript and made it much, much better. But there were still places where I had to refuse suggested changes.  In the end, it’s my name that goes on the book, and I have to answer for the audience’s reaction to it. I’m going through copyedits right now, and some of the time, the copyeditor, despite being a consummate professional who is greatly improving the quality of the manuscript, is just plain wrong. I cannot meekly stand by and let those changes stand anymore than I can allow my yeomen to input my range scores incorrectly, or forget to input them at all.

Because in the end, it’s on me.

As an officer and as a writer, I expected institutional membership to ease my sense of personal responsibility. Instead, it has made it more acute than ever. I own my life, more than I ever have. When the call is made, on the bridge or on my word processer, all eyes snap to me.

That’s incredibly empowering. But it’s also terrifying.  Because with it comes the realization that the old silly Kipling quote has a ring of truth: The strength of the wolf is the pack, but the strength of the pack is the wolf.

I really hope I’m doing this right.


Author Myke Cole

Myke Cole is an American writer of history and fantasy who leverages a lifetime in military, law enforcement and intelligence service to take you to battlefields, real and imagined.

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